George R.R. Martin lit a flame under the widening seat of the fantasy genre with the publication of the first book in "A Song of Ice and Fire," A Game of Thrones. The deft plotting, rounded and well-handled development of a very large cast of characters, and poetic mastery of language that won that book high praises from other masters of fantasy are equally evident in A Clash of Kings. This second series installment takes up the torch of "A Song of Ice and Fire" and carries it on without a misstep.
George R.R. Martin is very likely in the process of setting a new benchmark against which fantasy series will be stacked for some time to come.
A decade-long summer is drawing to an end, ten years full of peace and comfort for the Seven Kingdoms. Now a hard winter is coming, bringing with it far worse than cold, ice and snow. Robert Baratheon, who took the Iron Throne from the last mad Targaryen Dragon King in a bloody coup, and his tempering Hand, Eddard Stark of Winterfell, lie dead, losers in the treacherous game of thrones. Robert's heir-apparent, Joffrey, sits tenuously on the Iron Throne in King's Landing, his childish arrogance and cruelty kept barely in check by his uncle the Imp, Tyrion Lannister. Eddard Stark's eldest son Robb has named himself King in the North, leaving Winterfell behind to march with his liegemen against House Lannister and Joffrey. The dead king's younger brothers have both declared themselves heirs to Robert's throne as rumors of Joffrey's birth come to light and take on the air of truth. Eddard's ward Theon Greyjoy plots to bring his father's house back to ascendancy. And across a great sea, the last of the Targaryens, the Mother of Dragons, journeys across a deadly desert, determined to reclaim the crown that Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark wrested from her line.
The struggle for the crown plays itself out in cold brutality and unforgivable treachery. Hostages are taken, held, toyed with and killed as the fractured land state of upheaval escalates. Eddard Stark's crippled son Bran discovers that the old gods and his nursemaid's old stories hold truths that can free him from his own broken body, while the Queen Regent's dwarf brother finds a place of power and favor in his father's eyes, if only for a time. Eddard's ladylike daughter Sansa, a hostage to Joffrey in King's Landing, is misused and abused well past the point where any of her childish illusions of gallantry should still hold, yet she clings to the hope that a noble knight might save her from the nightmare her life has become. The other Stark daughter, Arya, masquerades as an orphan boy to escape those who would use her as a weapon against her own family. But the higher fate of the Seven Kingdoms could very well lie in the hands of two bastard boys on their way to becoming men: Jon Snow, born on the wrong side of Eddard Stark's sheets, forays beyond the great Wall keeping the Old Ones from coming down from the mountains in the North, while the apprentice blacksmith Gendry, unaware that his father was Robert Baratheon, links his fate to that of the tomboy princess Arya.
What makes "A Song of Ice and Fire" so compelling in part is the author's refusal to shy away from the distasteful and brutal realities of the world he has created, a world that in many ways closely resembles our Europe of the Middle Ages. Royal families dedicated to incest, sycophants and scheming courtiers, appalling abuses of physical and governing power, ugly and wholly frightening scenes of battle and war; George R.R. Martin doesn't skirt discreetly around the issues or images. But what really makes this series-in-progress succeed is its treatment of loyalty and honor, values made real by the characters peopling the plot, characters who make the story more than just a series of events. A Clash of Kings pulls us into a fascinating world of myth and man more wondrous than almost anywhere else on the fantasy map.